Barry under pressure to quit disaster-zone DC

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The Independent Online
WHO SHALL rule the New Rome? Which man or woman will gain ultimate power over the city that rules not just the most powerful nation on earth, but which indirectly guides the fortunes of hundreds of millions across the globe? Who will be mayor of Washington DC?

The job is real enough, but that description of it would bemuse anyone who lives in the city. For Washington is far from being the glamorous metropolis at the heart of an empire. "A city that should be America's Paris has become its Cairo," wrote the New York Times. Nor is it in control of its own destiny, unlike almost any other such city in the world.

The man whom many blame for this is Marion Barry, mayor of the city for 16 of the past 20 years. This weekend, Mr Barry may decide that four terms is enough.

At a meeting with community representatives and his supporters, he will decide whether to stand in this September's primary. Speculation is building that he will stand aside, perhaps to stand as a councilman, perhaps to retreat to academia.

Enigmatic to the last, he is giving no clues. "I am trying to wind down this decision, so I want to get one final look and a little prayer," Barry said this week. "I have really given this decision serious consideration, and I am really torn between what to do."

The Mayor's years in Washington saw him rise to power spectacularly in the 1970s, before falling just as dramatically when he was caught on camera smoking cocaine in a downtown hotel room in 1990, and jailed. But he bounced back, claiming redemption and a rediscovery of God, and won re-election in 1995.

Washington is a divided city, and few things divide it as much as Mayor Barry. Rock Creek Park, a strip of grass and trees that widens as it pushes north, is a green wedge that splits it into rich and poor, but also white and black. West of the park lie the prosperous suburbs with their clapboard houses, two-car garages and baseball hoops in the lush green gardens. The west-of-the-park white establishment of Washington can't stand the Mayor, and excoriates him weekly in the Washington Post. He doesn't need to worry that much: the electorate, predominantly black and poor, has voted him back into office anyway.

But Washington is in trouble. Over the past 25 years, the city of 500,000 has lost about 200,000 residents in a flight to the suburbs. Many of its basic services do not work, its finances (though improving) are chaotic and its public school system is rotten.

Those who blame Barry see him as the maladministrator who created this, playing politics when the city really needed a good manager. Over the past few years Congress has struck back, stripping the mayor of most of is powers, and creating a financial control board which wields more power than mayor and council combined.

Barry's friends would point out that the city had more than its fair share of problems before he arrived, and say that he was never given much of a chance by the white establishment. But pressure is building for a return to self-government, and most realise that while he is in office that will be an impossible goal. His friends have tried to prepare a dignified exit for him.

His opponents are already jockeying for position. Today four of them are expected to pick up their nomination papers: Republican Carol Schwartz and Democrats Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous and Harold Brazil.

In a city that is Democratic to the core, only Evans, Chavous and Brazil have a chance, but if Barry decided to run again, he could well still win re-election.